Man of Steel came out in theaters after a large promotion campaign to generally lukewarm critical reviews. Contrary to many professional reviews, the box office numbers and reception among the people is positive. Fans of the film are thankful that the angry professional critic is a very small portion of the population, so the odds of seeing this film prosper are good. Still, no one likes being told that their opinions are invalid, or that something they enjoy has little or no value. That is why instead of writing a review of Man of Steel, I am writing a critical rebuttal addressing the most prevalent criticisms of the film. While it is perfectly acceptable for someone to dislike any film they wish, a critic is supposed to hold themselves to a higher standard. In fact, a good critic should offer their opinion sheathed in an overview that transcends their own personal tastes. Most of the negative reviews build upon three major issues: too much action, too much internal conflict on the part of Superman, and a third act finale that violates the core concepts of the character. Working off the premise that an effective critic is one who looks at a work on its own merits, and within its own genre rather than comparing apples and oranges, this rebuttal will prove that the three major criticism leveled at Man of Steel are invalid and simply demonstrate the personal prejudices of the critic.
We will begin with the idea that this film has ‘too much action’. Of the three major criticisms this one was the most common, yet also the one that critics accepted more readily. This is because Man of Steel is a comic book superhero film. Anyone even remotely acquainted with superhero comic books knows that fighting is not only part of the genre, but usually present in nearly every issue. Action is the driving force of the superhero, and Superman even premiered in Action Comics which was as aptly named as one can imagine. Our first image of the character is him lifting a sedan over his head to foil a group of gangsters. Supporting this idea, is the fact that the last film featuring this character, Superman Returns, was heavily criticized for being too slow and not having much action at all. Man of Steel has a very action heavy third act, which is common among origin stories and superhero films in general. We saw the same structure in The Avengers, Batman Begins, The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and too many more to name. The idea of having Superman in a light-hearted action-light film is a throwback to the Richard Donner films of the late 1970’s. While his work with the character was monumental, it is the reluctance to let those films go that have hindered later attempts to revitalize the franchise. The show Smallville ran for ten seasons, a tremendous feat for any television show, demonstrating interest in the character. It was a very revisionist approach to Superman and his world, and despite some issues with repetitive storylines and easy drama, it stayed popular. Now that Man of Steel is out in theaters, reaction among the public is generally positive, and ticket sales are exceeding expectations for the opening weekend with an expected gross around 125 million. The action is directly contributing to this positive reaction, and makes for an exciting film despite critical complaints. Most importantly, it fits the character and genre, complaining about the action in a comic book film is like complaining about having pasta in your spaghetti.
Following the complaints about the action are issues with the emotional journey that Superman takes. Essentially, many critics take issue with his emotional concerns, finding them too adolescent for the 33 year old character. This is a criticism that not only is invalid, but also goes to demonstrate how out of touch most professional critics are with their modern audience. More than any other time in our post-WWII society, people are waiting longer to marry, have children, or settle on a profession. Psychologists and other social scientists have several long theories about the why, but the important part is that it is happening. People are not only less able to ‘settle’ into society, but are now less willing because of the increased importance placed on introspection and personal contentment. The Superman of Man of Steel is 33 years old, and therefore was found as a baby by the Kents somewhere around 1980. Meaning he grew up on the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of what many call the Generation Y or the Millennial Generation. This is a very interesting birth time, because it instills in that group the questioning and brooding of Gen X with the reduced opportunities of the Gen Y groups. Some might say that this is giving too much credit to the writer, but given that we do not know Mr. Goyer’s research methods it is impossible to say. Regardless, the Superman of this film is very modern and fits into his age group perfectly. Critics who complained that his emotional concerns were too adolescent, given that he wanders the world asking ‘who am I’, ignored the fact that on top of his generational concerns Superman is an alien. This is something the film demonstrates very explicitly; in this version when young Clark saves someone he doesn’t get a pat on the back. He does not even get the grudging recognition and support of Spider-Man from his fellow New Yorkers as we see in those films. Instead he is taught to be paranoid by his father, and afraid of a world that would not likely accept him. Can you imagine a young teenaged Clark Kent seeing films like Independence Day and the like when they came out? Even more telling, when he was very young and likely saw E.T. in theaters, or old sci-fi from the 50’s? Seeing a Pa Kent teaching young Clark about fear and paranoia is not even a completely new idea, it was echoed in the Smallville television series. Explaining why it took about six or seven years before he decided to actually become a hero and a full ten before he suited up for the first time. There have been various alternate comic book continuities and such that explored this idea as well. So, the critical complaint that Clark Kent’s fear of exposure, and disconnection from humanity was inappropriate to the character is invalid. It exists in many forms of his history, and fits this version of the character because of the film itself and the age they made him.
The final complaint is one that some critics voiced, but is the one that was most echoed among those who enjoyed the older Superman films, and might even be familiar with the comic books. They complained about the violent and action filled third act, including the collateral damage, but most of all the problem was with one particular scene. Now, this is a big spoiler for the film, so here is a warning:
THE DISCUSSION CONTAINED WITHIN THE BRACKETS BELOW IS A MAJOR SPOILER!
[Superman fights General Zod in a major showdown, and after a long and brutal fight he is forced to get serious to save a family that Zod is trying to kill with his laser eyes out of spite. This is the most blatant issue people have, although thanks to fridge logic (check TV Tropes for that one) many people are also taking issue with what they call ‘genocide’ on the part of Superman. General Zod takes a Kryptonian scout ship that has a ‘genesis chamber’ on board and is planning to use it, in conjunction with a terraforming device to rebirth his race and kill humanity in the process. When Zod uses the ship to attack a plane with Lois Lane and a device that they created to get rid of Zod’s minions, Superman busts in and uses his heat vision to destroy the ship. Of course, Zod warns him that he’ll be wiping out the last hope of reviving Krypton and Superman responds with, “Krypton had its chance”. Before destroying their arguments with reason, I want to take an aside to make a personal appeal: I am glad he did these things. I am getting so tired of the repetitive issues where a superhero refuses to take a life under any circumstances whatsoever. No, I do not want the 90’s anti-heroes who think life is cheap, but neither do I want some hypocrite who thinks that because their hands are ‘clean’ it is right to let villains kill and destroy. Superman destroys the ship in the heat of a fight, and never gets a chance to process it during the battle, not to mention that there are a whole host of arguments about the morality of him destroying the ship. For instance, the genesis chamber looks like underwater weeds with pods that grow babies, but at that point they had not genetic template. They were blanks waiting for data, no more sentient than stem cells in a lab. So what did Superman do? He destroyed the means of reviving his dead race to save the already living race of humanity. Was it tough, yes, but was it right, very much more yes! The living takes precedence over the non-living, and the pods were not alive. As for killing Zod, he does that to save other lives. Some argued that he could have tried to run over and save them, but they are clearly ignoring the situation. He has Zod in a rear naked choke, a very bad position to be in, naturally. Earlier in the fight, Superman is holding his own, but the tide was shifting towards Zod, who was a trained soldier and even learned how to fly during the fight. So, in the first place, Superman did not know that he could win the fight if he let go of his lucky hold. Also, Zod repeatedly stated, in his rage, that he planned on killing every human on the planet, and that the fight would go on until either he or Superman was dead. Finally, he had no outside help, no other heroes; there is not even any kryptonite in the film. No way to imprison or get help to defeat Zod. So, he gets in a lucky position and gets control of the fight, but Zod still won’t listen to reason and is turning his head to laser some innocent people. Lois runs in to see what is happening, adding to the tension by putting her in danger. Superman was out of options, had no guarantees, and was gambling with the lives of everyone he loved, and the whole human race to boot. In that position how could he not kill Zod? After he does it, he falls to his knees and is crushed by his remorse. The next scene takes place after a time skip of indeterminate length, because clearly he needed some time to cope with taking a life, and killing the last member of his race that he knows about. It was handled well, and Superman did what he had to do, proving himself a true hero even when the chips are down.]
THE DISCUSSION CONTAINED WITHIN THE BRACKETS ABOVE IS A MAJOR SPOILER!
No argument, however well reasoned or not, can truly change someone’s instinctual emotional reaction to something. People may love or hate Man of Steel, and with good reason, it is a controversial take on a very iconic part of our history. Superman has always been more important to people than is indicated by his financial hold on media. When a character gains that level of importance, people are extra sensitive about new interpretations. The familiar is a warm comforting blanket, and the new is a head-first dive into an unknown pool. Is it cold? Is it dirty? Is there even any water? We cannot really know until we take that dive. So, see the movie, judge on your own merits, that’s what matters. However, when critics throw their hats into the arena, and want to tell us the objective quality of something, they need to be objective. Man of Steel is not a perfect movie by any means, and has a lot of room to grow. Much like the Superman portrayed in the film, it does the best it can and for most of us that’s pretty darn good.